How to Set up a buffet for parties or family gatherings

It’s the season for entertaining, which means if you haven’t already started planning your holiday gathering or family events, you will be soon! As they should, most get togethers revolve around food, so while you don’t have to make things complicated, it’s always important to put some advanced thought into either making or buying something (hey, we aren’t above prepared dishes or catering!) delicious for your guests. The next step is setting up a buffet, which can sometimes feel intimidating.

We’re going to walk you through it, step by step — whether you’re using your dining table or a sideboard!

On Your Dining Table

How to set up a buffet on your dining room table

1. The Right Centerpiece

Now is not the time to create a large, over the top centerpiece. For one, something elaborate takes up prime real estate you’ll need for platters, dishes, napkins, and flatware. Second, you don’t want anyone worrying whether they’re going to light their shirt sleeve on fire as they’re grabbing the gravy boat.

We like something small but impactful. A flower arrangement in a bold colors has a lot of look in a little bit of space. We chose a deep crimson color palette to echo the red pattern on our container, but whatever the time of year, pick something bright and bold!

2. Prep Work

Always, always set out everything you’ll need at least the morning of the event so you can see how much space you’ll have and how many platters you can fit. Be sure to put out the stacks of plates, napkins, and flatware so you aren’t left squeezing those in at the last minute! We like to use sticky notes to map out where everything will go.

How to set up a buffet on your dining room table

3. Order is Everything

The speed at which people move through a buffet is directly proportional to how well the flow works, so be sure to think through how people will serve their plates!

A stack of plates indicates where the line starts, so always have your plates at the head of the table, but don’t put your flatware and napkins in the beginning! It’s too difficult to serve your food if you’re also trying to hold a plate and flatware and a napkin, so place flatware and napkins at the end of the line so people can grab them as they make their way to their seats! Here’s how we like to order things:

Plates > Entrée > Salad > Sides > Bread > Napkins > Flatware

How to set up a buffet on your dining room table

4. Vary the Heights

Since space is often limited on a buffet, using serving dishes at varying heights enables you to fit more on your table. We like to use footed bowls and cake stands to elevate some dishes, allowing more platters to fit.

Lazy susans are helpful! We put our flatware and napkins on this one so guests on either side of the table can reach them!

How to set up a buffet on your dining room table

5. Label Your Dishes

It’s not crucial but it is considerate to label your dishes. We used place card holders shaped like ornaments to let guests know what we’re serving. This is also a great way to warn people with food allergies!

How to Set up a buffet for parties or family gatherings

On a Sideboard

Space is even tighter on a sideboard or console, so you’ll need to be very thoughtful about the serve ware you’re using. In occasions like this, think vertically!

How to set up a buffet on a sideboard

6. Double Up Platters

Plating several dishes on one platter is a great way to take advantage of space. Here, we put both fish and chicken on the same platter, but you could also garnish your roast with a side dish like asparagus.

How to set up a buffet on a sideboard

7. Tiered Serveware 

A three tiered stand is perfect for a buffet because it gives you a ton of extra space. Even if you’re just piling bread or rolls up, you’ll save a ton of space and makes things easier for everyone.

Here, you can see how we used two platters, two footed bowls, and a tiered stand to squeeze everything in. The edges of the platter can be tucked under the taller serveware pieces!

How to set up a buffet on a sideboard

Find tons of holiday inspiration here, and shop Ballard Designs Tabletop & Entertaining.

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